I was recently asked about “the non-binary thing” and I found myself struggling to answer in a clearly defined way, largely because a part of my own non-binary identity is the rebellion against being clearly definable. There are many ways to be non-binary and many perspectives on what it’s all about.
We still seem to be fixated on clearly defining people, but people are not all that clearly definable. We are complicated messes that are constantly changing and evolving. You can’t, and shouldn’t, box people into their identities.
But we can’t ignore the growing enby existence. ‘They’ is becoming a common pronoun and there are more and more androgynous people walking about our communities. So what IS this non-binary thing all about?
The Problem with Binary Genders
People have been organized by gender as far back as we can dig up, but not always in the same way. Some languages don’t have pronouns at all. Some cultures have 3 genders, while others have 4. Yet the vast majority of the colonized world upholds not only the idea that there are two, distinct and concrete sexes (male and female) but also that these two sexes encompass a massive amount of other traits.
But that’s just not true.
The divide between male and female isn’t as extreme as we’ve been led to believe, nor is it as universal. There are lots of ways people can find themselves somewhere in between and our culture isn’t set up to accommodate or accept people who are biologically and/or psychologically outside of that binary.
Instead, we rigidly restrict people in acceptable forms of appearance and pursuits to align with one of only two gender options. Sure, there are a lot of people who do fit neatly into these narrowly defined roles, but there are many who don’t.
Do Labels Define Us?
Yes and no. Self-chosen labels can be personally liberating and they can also be harmful in certain circumstances. Externally-imposed labels can confine us and limit our potential, or they can offer us the relief of a clearly defined path to follow.
When it comes to gender identity, these positives and negatives often coexist. Yet as much as it is so very tempting to shout, “I DEFY LABELS!”, and then run off living your life without any form of group identity, that’s not really possible in the world that currently exists. Pretty much immediately you will be assigned a label, and then countless others, and if you choose not to accept them, you may find yourself fighting those labels your whole life.
Yet when we create our own labels and popularize them, we begin to take back control. When others accept and integrate them, we change the world. That’s Power. So what kind of world do we want to create?
The Subversive Potential of Enbys
A growing non-binary group identity means that sooner or later, we will have to change how we think about gender and sexuality. From sports to bathrooms to gender-exclusive spaces, the impacts are huge and far-reaching. For some, this can feel threatening, for others, liberating.
If we break the gender binary, terms like homosexuality and heterosexuality become meaningless. The lines we’ve drawn to divide us melt away. No longer do we have an Us vs Them mentality. We simply become diverse humans who live unique lives.
However, erasing gender and thus erasing sexual diversity can also be a problem. There are historical realities that have led to huge differences in privilege that don’t simply go away overnight. How can we move towards a freer world while acknowledging and addressing historical inequality? That’s not an easy question to answer, however understanding gender variance may help us figure out a way forward.
Trans Identities: Binary vs Non-Binary
Transgender people are people whose gender identity is different from the one that was assigned to them at birth. Many trans people do identify with a binary gender. For these trans people, gender-affirming care and binary terms are essential for their well-being.
Some other trans people, however, don’t identify with a binary gender. They may be in mid-transition and thus exhibit both male and female characteristics. Or they may feel that their gender experience encompasses more than one gender or something outside of our gender definitions.
But there are consequences to non-conformity. From awkward staring to full-on abuse, a non-binary person in a binary world is emotionally, and sometimes physically, unsafe. For this reason, many trans people may opt for more gender-affirming procedures than they might have otherwise chosen simply because it helps keep them safe.
While people should remain free from judgment in the gender choices they make to live happy, fulfilling lives, it certainly would help alleviate pressure if the general societal values shifted away from the binary.
Non-binary is an identity under the trans umbrella for people who don’t identify as male or female exclusively.
Some identify as a mixture of both, and others as something else entirely, and not all non-binary people also identify as trans. Many are opting for the increasingly more popular they/them pronouns, others accept a range of pronouns (including the one assigned to them at birth) and some have embraced neopronouns like ze/zir.
Ultimately, choosing to identify as non-binary is a way that people have found to expand the space they’re allowed to inhabit. It can be a powerful way to dismantle the internalized sexism that lurks within and for most, it’s just a more accurate way of describing themselves.
Because of the growing popularity and recognition of non-binary people, there are plenty of folks who were using other terms to describe themselves but have since migrated to using non-binary. It’s nice to have a familiar term to point to when you’re not up for an in-depth conversation about the complexities of gender identity. It can also promote solidarity to have a unifying term.
But within the non-binary umbrella, there’s a lot of variation.
Another way of existing outside the binary is to oscillate between them. Though there is no fixed definition of gender fluidity, there is a common understanding that a gender-fluid person’s experience of gender changes from one category to the next. The rate of change can be on any scale, with some people shifting over the course of their lives and some shifting from moment to moment.
Not every non-binary person is genderfluid, but having a fluid gender identity is certainly part of the non-binary umbrella. They may opt for specific and constant pronouns, changing pronouns as their gender changes or they may not care at all about what pronouns you use for them. Always good to ask!
This term is definitely less common, but it’s useful. Genderflux means that your attachment to gender fluctuates in intensity. As with genderfluidity, someone’s rate of change can vary considerably. They may have rapid, frequent changes or more gradual changes over their lifespan.
This term came into being in 2014 via Tumblr and quickly evolved to include a range of -flux identities. As it is closely related to genderfluidity, genderflux people are likely to also identify as genderfluid and therefore also in the non-binary family of identities.
Another common label that we come across in the non-binary sphere is genderqueer. Again, there’s a lot of variety in what this looks like and it can encompass cisgender people as well as transgender people.
Ultimately, genderqueer is a term for people who feel they have a non-normative experience of gender. Maybe they’re a very masculine woman, or maybe they’re agender (someone who experiences an absence of gender identity). They might identify solely as genderqueer, or they might also identify with other labels. As you can see, there’s the potential for a lot of overlap of these identities.
Two-Spirit & Third Genders
As I mentioned earlier, some cultures have three or more genders. Many Indigenous North American cultures have had different gender systems that encompassed more than two gender identities. Due to colonization and cultural erasure, some of the traditional understandings of these identities have been lost or altered.
Two-spirit is a modern term that has been used within Indigenous North American communities for people who exist outside the binary. As with all of these other categories, there are many ways to be two-spirit, but they are all rooted in an Indigenous North American context.
Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia all legally have a third gender. Across several South Asian cultures are hijra (also known as khusra in Punjabi and kojja in Telugu) who are born male but adopt a feminine gender identity. These people are seen as having their own distinct gender outside of the male/female binary.
Intersex people exist, and some (but not all!) of them identify as non-binary. Generally, an intersex person is someone whose body can’t be fully classified as male or female, and there are a lot of ways one can be intersex. This can be defined by incongruence in the visible sex characteristics, internal sex organs, chromosomes, and/or hormones.
Before university, I hadn’t ever heard of the existence of intersex people. In an anthropology class, I learned that not only did intersex people exist, but common practice in the colonial world was to surgically “fix” these babies, often without the informed consent of the parents. I didn’t meet an intersex person until many years later. Now, I’m beginning to see intersex people included in queer communities explicitly. It’s a cool trend to witness.
The very existence of intersex people gives me hope. It’s a crack in the concrete structure of gender-based violence and oppression. If you can’t draw a line between people to divide them, there is no basis on which oppression can thrive. Unfortunately, throughout history people who find themselves firmly in the ‘other’ category have been subjected to forced sterilization, forced surgery, exclusion from the community, and other torturous experiences.
PCOS: is this Intersex?
If you have PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), a doctor won’t tell you you’re intersex, though you may decide to claim that label for yourself. There is a growing trend toward accepting PCOS folks into the intersex community, but it isn’t unanimously accepted. People with PCOS have a vagina and ovaries, but they also have a high level of androgens — “male” hormones (in addition to other symptoms like irregular periods and cysts on their ovaries).
In a binary world with very rigid definitions of gender, it isn’t easy to defy the norms. Many women with PCOS strongly identify as female and understandably don’t want to be seen as any less of a woman for having the symptoms of PCOS. With elevated androgens, someone with PCOS may experience increased facial and body hair, balding, acne, and oily skin, among other symptoms. Some of these people may also find a home in a non-binary identity.
It’s actually quite a common condition, too. The WHO data suggests that 3.4% of women are affected worldwide, but some estimates range between 4 and 20%! If ALL of those people proudly took up the label of intersex and/or non-binary, that would have a huge impact on how we think about gender.
Regardless of the path that helps you accept and love yourself, PCOS is a condition that shows how harmful these narrow definitions of gender can be, especially for people who may never want to see themselves outside the binary. For a really great assessment of PCOS from the perspective of a self-declared intersex activist with PCOS, check out their article here.
Break Out of Gender Jail
As you can see, there are many ways to be non-binary! Regardless of where your own identity lies, it can be worthwhile to question how the binary gender system has affected you. Are there activities or interests you have pursued or shied away from simply because it was or wasn’t meant for your gender?
The pandemic saw a huge increase in people identifying as non-binary. When we were all staying home all the time and not having to consider the outside world in our self-expression, many of us realized how much work we were putting into keeping up a gender performance that may not have fit. There was an increase in personal freedom and many of us decided to keep it.
Gender is complicated and if we want to create a post-gender world, we have to do so carefully. The first step is for each of us to deeply reflect on how gender has shaped our own lives and to explore the options that fit best for us.